An environmental big stick

By the 1980s, it was clear North Carolina needed to solve major pollution problems in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers. But nothing happened until the government brandished a big stick. Both rivers drain through the heart of the state, running almost parallel, about 50 miles apart. They flow into the slow-moving estuary waters of Pamlico Sound, a bay-like body of water loosely separated from the Atlantic

By the 1980s, it was clear North Carolina needed to solve major pollution problems in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers. But nothing happened until the government brandished a big stick.

Both rivers drain through the heart of the state, running almost parallel, about 50 miles apart. They flow into the slow-moving estuary waters of Pamlico Sound, a bay-like body of water loosely separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a string of islands sometimes called the Outer Banks. The somewhat static waters of Pamlico Sound made the pollution problems more obvious because they slowed dispersion of the rivers' waters into the ocean.

In a sense, the history of these rivers' pollution and associated legislation is characteristic of most water-borne pollution and cleanup in the U.S. The pattern is predictable — recognition, maybe outrage, then an initial round of legislation. Soon it becomes apparent that more problems exist or the earlier-noted problems are not being solved. Another round of legislation follows, usually aimed at the next obvious problem. Later, still more forms of pollution come under scrutiny and yet another legislation-driven cleanup is engaged.

But the story of the two North Carolina rivers is not the standard tale. The Neuse River cleanup is now hailed as highly successful, with little bitter aftertaste. And the Tar-Pamlico River cleanup is beginning to look comparably successful.

What makes these river cleanups different? Perhaps two things:

  • Multi-agency and multi-public cooperation.

  • The North Carolina Legislature went to extreme lengths to educate and help the responsible parties with their cleanup efforts.

Herein lies the story of how total maximum daily load (TMDL) goals can be met, while ensuring people can talk more amiably with each other, even after the dust settles.

Special Task Force Formed

About seven years ago, North Carolina created a special task force called the Neuse River Education Team. Its purpose was, and is, to educate agricultural producers, homeowners and the cities responsible for the non-point source pollution in the Neuse watershed. Legislators also made a major financial commitment to the effort they had birthed.

At inception, the team cost more than $500,000 annually. Budget cuts have whittled that total amount down over the years, but it still carries a price tag near a half million dollars.

Concerned parties that went to the general assembly in 1996 and explained the need for education to accompany the requirements for reducing nutrient loading instigated the Neuse River effort.

Some might argue the appeal was made under duress. In the 1980s the government began heavily targeting point-source polluters and they put non-point source polluters on notice that they would need to change their ways.

In 1993, the Department of Water Quality noted inadequate progress had been made and established the first basin-wide management plan, which recommended an accelerated schedule for reducing nitrogen runoff from non-point sources. Agriculture was contributing almost half of the total nitrogen entering the river system, they said.

Fish kills due to hypoxia (nutrient-induced lack of oxygen), and bacterial outbreaks in the lower Neuse River in 1995 increased public awareness and put the agricultural community in the spotlight. Algal blooms added to the problem.

Rick Dove, a Neuse Riverkeeper, testified before the U.S. Congress about the intensity of pollution. Dove was a full-time, paid citizen representative of the non-profit Neuse River Foundation.

CNN cried out that high loads of fertilizer in the river were causing a one-cell animal called Pfiesteria piscicida to sicken humans and kill millions of fish. U.S. News and World Report implicated waste spills from large-scale hog farms as one cause for Pfiesteria outbreaks in one of its reports.

The public was outraged and the agriculture community appeared to be facing a serious regulatory hand slapping.

At that point, it was fair to say voluntary reductions of nutrient loading in the basin by non-point sources, primarily agriculturists, had not succeeded.

As is often the case with voluntary compliance, “They just blew it off,” says Deanna Osmond, a North Carolina State University extension scientist and leader of the Neuse Team's crop management project.

In fact, surveys of agricultural producers by the Neuse River team before the educational project began showed many were still in denial about their role in the problems. Most farmers said they were being unjustly accused and that the numbers and accusations were “all politics,” intended to make them the scapegoats. The tough economic conditions they faced at the time meant they would never apply too much nitrogen — they simply couldn't afford it. The real problem, most agreed, was urban excessive use of fertilizers.

Ag Leaders Stepped Up

The state Environmental Management Commission created a watershed-wide set of rules requiring the cleanup. It was known by the cumbersome name of the Neuse River Basin Nutrient Sensitive Waters Management Strategy. It included creation of the Neuse River Education Team. Additional rules about riparian buffers were adopted in 1998.

Fortunately, leaders from the agricultural community became involved in the rulemaking process. Commodity groups, in particular, lobbied alongside environmental leaders and scientists to get the educational program developed. Greg Jennings, North Carolina State University extension specialist in biological and agricultural engineering, served as the Neuse River Education Team leader. The educational program appeared to be the most logical way to meet the demands of the regulations, he says.

To tackle agriculture's role in the watershed problems, possibly 4,000 agriculturists and large-scale turf managers would have to be contacted. Their needs would be as simple as educating them about fertilizer application rates and runoff, and as complex as multi-thousand-dollar changes in water flow and creation of buffer zones on some properties, Jennings explains.

In the Neuse watershed it had been determined 75% of the nitrogen-overloading problem was from non-point sources, and almost half of the total nitrogen came from agriculture.

Farmers were asked to reduce nitrogen leakage into the river basin by more than one million pounds per year. The rest was deemed the responsibility of urban areas, particularly controlling nutrient levels in storm runoff.

Nitrogen Reduction Successful

The state tried to involve all the stakeholders in decision-making and education process. The seemingly cumbersome legislative bodies they created apparently worked. By late 2003, the watershed had exceeded its goal of 30% reduction in overall river nitrogen load — dropping it by 34%. Nutrient management plans were put in place on over 105,000 acres. Overall, fertilizer applications rates were reduced 23%.

The plan also cut soil-applied, pre-emergence herbicides by 40%. This was an important step to preclude the EPA's enforcement of the Food Quality Protection Act, which would consider pesticide usage and accumulation in watersheds.

The primary reason the goals were achieved was because of this amazing spirit of cooperation, Osmond says. The cooperative effort of many government agencies, hundreds of farmers, crop consultants, agribusiness people, grower organizations and the North Carolina State University Research Station and Extension Service made it possible.

Tar-Pamlico Goes Slower

Legislated cleanup of non-point source pollution in the Tar-Pamlico River watershed started three years later than in the Neuse River to its south — and it lags behind in success.

The state modeled parts of the Tar-Pamlico cleanup on the Neuse plan. However, legislators were less generous in funding the Tar-Pamlico effort. In fact, the Tar-Pamlico River plan struggled until nearly a half million dollars in EPA 319 funds were granted.

The state set goals for the Tar-Pamlico Basin that included reducing nitrogen reaching the Pamlico estuary by 30% and limited phosphorus load to 1991 levels.

From 1991 to 2001, nitrogen levels dropped by an average of 18%, explains Rich Gannon, Tar-Pamlico nutrient strategy manager for the North Carolina Department of Water Quality.

But, apparently, not everyone was on board. From 1992 through 2001, 10 of 14 counties exceeded their goal of 30% reduction. Those counties registered reductions between 39% and 56%. However, the other four counties achieved reductions of only 12% to 24%. They face further scrutiny and requirements to meet best management practices.

For some reason, these counties did not cut back on nitrogen application rates as well as the rest of the counties, Gannon says. By 2006, the local advisory committees in those counties must help their charges meet their goals or face additional requirements.

Those involved with the Tar-Pamlico project say they have made reasonable progress, but they started into their official management plan three years later than the Neuse project and they didn't have near the amount of funding.

Both the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico projects were helped toward their reduction goals by the 1985 farm bill, which encouraged retirement of cropland through highly erodible lands provisions. The bill helped reduce total cropland acreage and helped establish buffer zones. The farm bill also allowed many farmers to switch from base-acre crops such as corn to less nutrient-dependent crops like cotton.

Personalities Matter

The Tar-Pamlico project also underwent more initial strife than the Neuse project. The complaints started out more in “fear and loathing of regulation” than anything else, Gannon explains.

“It's amazing how much one person can affect the process. One individual, from the pasture industry spearheaded an objection to the rules,” Gannon explains.

That individual, Franklin County cattleman Mike DeVaughn, was concerned about the validity of the science, offended by the pretense of wrongdoing without individual farm testing, and generally opposed much of the plan presented.

The issues DeVaughn raised required many hours of additional work by the regulatory agencies and actually drove the entire process into mediation.

In an odd twist of fate, DeVaughn was put on the Basin Oversight Committee in an unplanned and newly created position as the pasture industry representative. He currently chairs that committee and remains an integral part of the system.

“As it turned out, we decided we needed him and we eventually made him chairman,” Gannon explains. “I think we have become friends.”

Possibly, the story of the black sheep entering the fold may be the best lesson of all. Certainly, it bolsters the concepts of cooperation and team play, the very notions that so many people consider the foundation of North Carolina's success.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of such struggles: “Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further. But, cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”

The Neuse River plan

For the Neuse River watershed plan, the state of North Carolina came up with six basic practices to meet the required decreases in nutrient loading. In one way or another, these apply to nearly every person in the watershed.

  • Protection and maintenance of riparian areas with vegetation (buffer zones).

  • Reduction in wastewater discharges.

  • Urban storm-water management plans from 10 municipalities and five counties.

  • Reduction in agricultural nitrogen loading.

  • Nutrient management training and documentation of application practices by anyone fertilizing more than 50 acres of land.

  • Nutrient offset payments for restoration of wetlands and riparian areas in the river basin.

For agriculture in particular, regulators recommended these best management practices.

  • Riparian buffers (vegetated areas next to water resources) that protect water resources from non-point source pollution and provide bank stabilization and aquatic and wildlife habitat.

  • Water-control structures in fields with drainage ditches. The structures allow water in the drainage outlets to be raised or lowered for timely drainage, but also provide maximum storage of water within the field for crop use, thereby reducing the escape of nutrients.

  • Stream modifications to help capture nutrients and sediments. In-stream wetlands are sometimes constructed, along with wetlands outside the normal stream channels. Stream-bank stabilization helps decrease stream velocity and energy and therefore reduce stream-bank erosion and sedimentation.

  • Terracing, contour farming and conservation tillage to reduce runoff and erosion.

  • Grassed waterways and field borders to help buffer runoff from fields.

Nutrient management plans to help growers reduce the amount of nitrogen applied in addition to helping them improve the timing, placement and type of nitrogen applied. These plans affected 106,000 acres in 2002 and helped two-thirds of the farmers decrease their nitrogen application rates.

The online story

These Web sites will help you learn more about the legislation and cooperation of North Carolina agriculture, cities and government in reducing nutrient overload in Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River systems.



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